Honduras crisis talks edge toward collapse

The three-member Supreme Electoral Tribunal, visiting Washington to tout the neutrality of the Nov. 29 vote, insist they can hold a free and fair election even after President Manuel Zelaya was toppled in an army-backed June coup.

The United States, the European Union and Latin American governments have condemned the coup and are demanding Zelaya - who came back from exile to take refuge in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa -- be restored to power to finish his term.

The de facto government of Roberto Micheletti, appointed by Congress after the putsch, says Zelaya was legally removed from office for violating the constitution and cannot return to power.

In Tegucigalpa, three weeks of negotiations to find a way out of the crisis were in serious trouble on Thursday, with Zelaya's representatives threatening to walk away from the table if the leftist was not reinstated.

"If by midnight tonight we have not received a response from Micheletti's delegation, we consider this dialogue finished," Zelaya's lead negotiator Victor Meza told reporters.

Micheletti's camp ignored the ultimatum, offering to present a new proposal on Friday.

Zelaya's envoys said the toppled president would wait until midnight (2 a.m. EDT/0600 GMT) to decide whether to wait for Micheletti's new offer or go ahead and break off talks.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has yet to decide whether it will recognize the election as legitimate if Zelaya is not restored before the vote.

Jose Saul Escobar, the Honduran electoral body's president, said he hoped there would be a political settlement, but that Honduras needs to elect the next president due to take office in January to preserve democratic rule.

"The majority of Hondurans want the elections to go ahead to resolve the crisis," he said in Washington.


More than 118,000 poll workers have been trained to staff voting stations with U.S. funding, said David Andres Matamoros, one of the three Honduras electoral officials who met with State Department officials on Wednesday.

"The government of the United States is following a two-track policy: they support the negotiation of a political deal, but are also backing the election process," he said.

Zelaya was exiled by soldiers on June 28 after he upset business leaders, the military and politicians in his own party by moving Honduras closer to Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez. His critics said he wanted to extend his time in office, a charge he denies.

Zelaya returned secretly a month ago and has been camped out in the heavily guarded Brazilian embassy since.

This week the army set up giant speakers to blast the embassy all through the night with loud, grating noise ranging from military band music to pig grunts. It imposed new controls on street protests, which are mainly pro-Zelaya.

Human rights groups have documented major abuses by the de facto government and say a free and fair election is impossible after Micheletti curbed civil liberties with an executive decree last month.

Washington suspended the visas of more senior figures in the de facto government on Wednesday to press for a settlement.

(Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg, Adriana Barrera, Ines Guzman and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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